Harpy Hell-O-Ween, Super-Creeps!
Yeah, I know, I know: this blog is deader than disco. But I still can't shake my annual desire to talk about the horror movies that scared the ever-livin' fertilizer outta me as a formative human.
In previous entries I've talked about early childhood scares as well as my personal run-ins with such formative, bone-chilling horror fare as An American Werewolf in London, The Exorcist, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Alien, The Return of the Living Dead, and The Evil Dead.
As I rabidly began to consume every example of the genre I could get my hands on, I started to hone in on what really scared me the most. It wasn't movies featuring masked killers, suave vampires or monstrous bug-a-boos, it was spiritual stuff. For some reason, films featuring spectral threats such as ghosts and phantoms really had my number. Looking back on it now, I suppose it had something to do with my lapsed Catholic faith. After all, when you're raised as a good Cat'lick boy, the Holy Ghost constitutes one-third of your irrational belief system.
Ergo, if there are Holy Ghosts, why not Unholy Ghosts?
The next movie I saw on my cavalcade of terror came relatively late in my career as a horror fan. I think I was eighteen or nineteen at the time when I first saw it. This is partly because the movie had been almost universally panned by movie critics when it first came out back in 1980. For example, Nigel Andrews, in his book Horror Movies writes:
"Though one admires the film for its metaphysical and mazy obsessionalism - here are Jack Nicholson, Shelley Duvall and Danny Lloyd endlessly chasing each other's psyche's in an inner circle of their homemade Hell - it seldom harrows or terrifies."
Hmmm, I don't think "mazy" a word. Nor is obsessionalism for that matter. Oh, well.
At the time, I thought this rather surprising, given the film's pedigree. After all, I'd seen many of Stanley Kubrick's other movies and I thought they were all rather effective. To this day Dr. Strangelove is still my favorite comedy, 2001: A Space Odyssey blew my fragile, eggshell mind and both A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket rocked me to the core by shattering on-screen taboos and depicting visceral violence. At the very least, I knew that Kubrick had the balls to go there in the horror genre.
What I didn't know was that Kubrick had crafted a film so dense, so bold and so innovative that it would come to revolutionize the horror genre in much the same way that those aforementioned films redefined comedy, sci-fi and war movies. Just like all of his previous projects, Kubrick was so ahead of pack that it took everyone else on the planet about a decade to catch up to him.
When I sat down to watch The Shining late one night sometime back in the late 80's, I honestly wasn't expecting very much. I certainly didn't expect to see my worst nightmares made incarnate in film
As soon as I pressed the "PLAY" button on my VCR's remote control, I immediately started to feel unsettled. The credits, the effin' credits, fer Chrissakes, were creeping me out. Between the sweeping helicopter shots conveying shades of omniscient, disembodied forces keeping watch on us overhead and the discordant, banshee-like wails on the uber-spooky soundtrack, I was already starting to come down with a serious case of the wiggins.
We're soon introduced to Jack Torrence, played by the incomparable Jack Nicholson. When we first meet Jack, he's being interviewed for the job of caretaker at the isolated Overlook Hotel. We learn that Jack is a struggling writer who's looking to winter at the hotel with his family and perhaps finally start working on that elusive GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL he's been telling people at parties all about. He accepts the assignment, even when Ullman, the hotel manager, sneaks in a colorful little eleventh-hour vignette about a previous caretaker who went Coo-Coo for Cocoa Puffs and chopped up his wife and two daughters with an axe. Fun!
Inter-spliced between this is a scene where we meet Jack's wife Wendy, played to pathetic perfection by Shelly Duvall and his young son Danny. Quite often child actors are so dreadful that they completely take me out of the film but young Danny Lloyd plays disassociated and shell-shocked so well here that I think he's on par with his adult peers. I'm not sure what Kubrick did to wring such an amazing performance out of him. Hopefully it's never revealed that Danny's pet rabbit was kept hostage in the walk-in fridge until he hit his marks.
Anyway, young Master Lloyd does a tremendous job conveying trepidation and trauma. Adding an extra layer of oddness to the proceedings is Danny's invisible friend Tony, who he talks to by wiggling his finger. What's even stranger is that Wendy just rolls with it, even going so far as to directly address her son's bobbing digit from time to time. I get the impression that poor, pale, chain-smoking Wendy has been so badly beaten down by life's incessant worries that she's like 'F#ck it, I gotta pick and choose my battles so I'll talk to the finger.'
By that point in my life I'd seen enough horror movies to know that it's a generally a good idea to listen to kids, particularly psychic ones. After croaking out that he "doesn't want to go", Tony gives Danny and the viewer a delightful little sneak peek at things to come: namely a veritable tidal wave of blood gushing through the hotel's elevators doors. Not only does this cause Danny to black out, it forced me to shut off the VCR at the time and create a notable spike in my parent's power bill.
After humming cheerily and basking in the florescent light of the kitchen for awhile, I eventually trudged back to the T.V. room, eased into the sofa and pressed "PLAY" again. Mercifully, I was treated to a bit of a reprieve as a doctor comes to visit Danny to make sure he's alright. That's right, kids, we might have smart phones and online banking now but back in the day, doctors made house-calls! #darkageconveniences
I remember feeling decidedly jealous of Danny since he seemed to be taking all of this in stride a lot better than I was. After wringing very little information out of Danny about Tony or the vision, the Doc digs up some interesting trivia while chatting with Wendy. As it turns out, Jack inadvertently hurt Danny one night after he'd been drinking, leading to a five month stretch of sobriety. The plot thickens.
Instead of taking Danny's fainting spell as an omen (or an ottoman, as the case may be), Jack packs up the fam and whisks them off to the hotel. En route they have an absolutely whack-a-do conversation about the Donner Party, whereby Jack almost gleefully explains how this poor, lost clan had to eat each other in order to survive. When Wendy chides Jack for talking about this in front of Danny, the boy casually replies: "Don't worry, Mom. I know all cannibalism. I saw it on T.V."
This scene forces me to make a confession: I had issues with The Shining the first time I saw it as well. That's not to say that it didn't scare the ever-lovin' crap outta me, I just had some pretty hefty issues with the plot. For one, I'd already read the book by that point and, like Stephen King himself, I though that Kubrick took too many liberties with the plot. Chief of which is how quickly Jack Torrence goes over the deep end.
The first time we see Jack during the interview, he appears to be just fine. If anything, he comes across as a bit too conciliatory. But now that we see him with his family, he seems to be decidedly out of patience and humors the practical aspects of turning your kinfolk into bouillabaisse. Upon first viewing this kinda pissed me off since it jettisoned the natural arc of deterioration Jack experiences in the book. Now I just look at it as another way for Kubrick to sow those early seeds of discord and ensure that we never feel sympathy for this died-in-the-wool asshole.
More on that later.
Kubrick continues to ratchet up the creep-factor. While playing darts by himself in the hotel's game room, Danny gets the feeling like he's being watched. He turns around to see two pasty-faced girls with abnormally large foreheads staring at him. Without saying a word they gradually turn around and slowly drift out of the room. Eeeeee. Then, while Ullman, the site manager, is escorting Jack and Wendy around the property, he lets another chestnut casually slip about how the hotel was built on an ancient Indian burial ground. Man, this guy is THE ABSOLUTE WORST real estate agent on the planet!
All of this spooky preamble comes to a head when the Torrances meet Dick Halloran, the head chef of the Overlook. After sharing a silent tete-a-tete with Danny, the two have a private conversation and the boy finally learns about the nature of his special abilities, which Halloran calls "shining". Dick explains that a rare handful of people have the ability to see psychic residue left over at places where bad things happened. Since I've always subscribed to this concept, at least in principal, hearing this actually voiced in a movie was particularly troubling to me.
Halloran insists that he's "scared of nothing here" and that the Overlook's own macabre version of "shining" is harmless, just like pictures in a book. But then Danny plucks what must be a glaringly-obvious splinter out of the chef's brain and asks a very specific question...
DANNY: "What about Room 237? You're scared of Room 237, ain'tcha?"
HALLORAN: "No I ain't."
DANNY: "Mr. Halloran, what is in Room 237?"
HALLORAN: "Nothing. There ain't nothing in Room 237. But you ain't got no business going in there anyway, so stay out! You understand, stay out!"
Before Kubrick gives Halloran a chance to elaborate we smash-cut to another title card that simply says "A MONTH LATER". This is sheer brilliance on Kubrick's part. For those keeping score at home, so far we've gotten an eerie "spirits in the sky" intro, Danny's oddball visions and behavior, the threat of total isolation for six months, creepy stories about the hotel, Jack's past history with anger management and alcohol and now, a "Bluebeard"-style mystery about Room 237. So, with that simple little title card, Kubrick informs us that this poor family has already been marinating in this polluted psychic stew for thirty days.
And I'm just taking into account all of the overtly weird stuff. I haven't even mentioned all of the inexplicable subliminal shit that your woke mind probably missed but your brain is subconsciously gnawing away on like a rat chewing on the bars of its cage. For example, how can Ullman's office possibly have an outdoor window? Why is Jack reading a copy of Playgirl while he's waiting to meet his new employer in the lobby? Why are the girls identical twins when they're described as sisters aged eight and ten?
There are a lot of visual anomalies in The Shining both before and after the Torrances move into the hotel. Now, normally, I'd just chalk this up to simple continuity errors, but Kubrick was notoriously anal retentive about every aspect of his films. Yes, I know the movie has a few unintentional flubs but I think a lot of what viewers see as goofs are just designed to keep our unconscious minds off-kilter. And by the time the film reaches the mid-way point, this incessant parade of discordant, under-the-radar noodle-bending starts to chip away at the viewer's mental state.
Anyhoo, we're a month in and already Jack is starting to exhibit signs of writers block and fatigue. He tells Wendy that he "fell in love" with the hotel from day one and the place gives him a preternatural sense of deja vu. "It was almost as though I knew what was going to be around every corner," he tells her, then makes light of it with a pretty bitching "spooky ghost" impersonation. This segues into an unsettling shot where Jack takes a break from his fruitless labors by throwing a tennis ball incessantly against the wall and then gazes down at a model of the nearby hedge maze where he envisions his wife and son getting lost in the labyrinth.
Things continue to go downhill. Via a revolutionary continuous Steadicam shot, we see Danny Big Wheeling around the hotel and encountering the notorious Room 237. He gets a vivid mental flash of the same two creepy girls from earlier so he gives up on testing the locked door and wisely books it out of there. Then Jack completely loses his marbles on Wendy when she interrupts his fevered writing. Later we see him looking decidedly unhinged as he stares out the window at his family who are frolicking outdoors in the snow.
A heavy winter storm blankets the hotel, making things feel even more insulated and claustrophobic. Kubrick once again follows Danny around on his Big Wheel as he bombs around a corner and runs smack dab into the same haunting twins we've seen before. This time, after staring balefully at him for a bit, they finally speak, and what they say doesn't come as a relief:
Kubrick then turned my brain into gibbering mush by inter-splicing a few frames of the two girls lying bloodied and all hacked up on the floor. For the record, this ghastly image is single-handedly responsible for my irrational fear of old, underpopulated hotels and children. Particularly British children.
This charming little scene necessitated yet another break. I shut off the VCR and hyperventilated for awhile under the comforting glow of every 60-watt bulb in my parent's house.
'This effin' movie is really getting under my skin,' I remember thinking to myself as I poured a few ketchup chips into a bowl. I looked down at them, suddenly felt queasy and immediately put them back in the bag.
Resigned to my fate, I returned to the haunted environs of the T.V. room and tentatively pressed the "PLAY" button. Damned if this movie was gonna get the best of me tonight.
Once again, Kubrick cleanses the palate by serving up a scene of relative domestic normalcy. But even now he can't help but needle our subconscious brain by showing Wendy and Danny watching a television set that isn't even plugged in. Dafuq?
Anyway, this false tranquility is soon torn asunder when Danny tries to tip-toe through their living quarters and encounters his dad, who's sitting on the edge of his bed looking disheveled. He invites his son over for a heart-to-heart, and the resulting exchange gives a pretty reliable sneak peak of what to expect during the second half of the film. When Danny asks Jack point blank if he plans to hurt him and / or his mum, Jack doesn't deny it right away, instead choosing to ask if Wendy put the idea in his head.
Then, in a "methinks thou dost protest too much" kinda moment he tells his son:
JACK: "I love you, Danny. I love you more than anything else in the whole world, and I'd never do anything to hurt you, never. You know that, don't you, huh?"
Fun fact: Steven Spielberg once told Kubrick that he thought Jack Nicholson's performance in The Shining was so over the top as to be out of sight. Kubrick responded by asking Steven who his favorite actors are and Spielberg reflexively rhymed off "Spencer Tracy, Henry Fonda, James Stewart, Cary Grant, Clark Gable." Kubrick stopped him and asked why the legendarily-hammy James Cagney wasn't on the list, because he was one of Stanley's all-time favorite actors.
I will also concede that Nicholson goes completely yooka-laylee mid-way through the film and his performance borders on parody at times. But the more I see The Shining, the more I realize that Kubrick and Nicholson took the right approach, especially after witnessing this subtle and chilling scene with Danny Lloyd. Let's face it: legit crazy people don't care if their mask of normalcy slips off. If anything, Jack's performance is very Cagney-esque: completely free of pretensions and unrepentantly unhinged.
Literally two scenes after reassuring his son that he won't touch a hair on his angelic l'il noggin, Jack has a harrowing nightmare about Ginsu-ing Wendy and Danny up with an axe. Wendy tries to re-assure him but then Danny stumbles into the room looking borderline catatonic. She runs over to him and notices that his shirt collar is ripped and he's got a dirty big red welt on his neck.
After spending about two milliseconds in her mind-palace, Wendy logically concludes that Jack had his ham-hocks all over the boy. But, then again, Wendy didn't witness the previous scene.
We, on the other hand, did see what happened. We saw a tennis ball roll towards Danny as he was playing with his toy cars in the hallway. We watched him stand up to investigate where it came from and then notice that the door for Room 237 was ajar. We didn't get to see what Danny witnessed in that room, but given the physical marks on the boy, we now suspect that Halloran's "harmless pictures in a book" theory isn't 100% accurate.
Or is it? More on that later...
Now tried and convicted, Jack goes on a tantrum-fueled stomp through the deserted hotel, eventually ending up in the Gold Ballroom. He grabs a seat at the bar, lamenting that he'd "sell his goddamn soul" for a glass of beer. And then, right on cue, the spectral bartender Lloyd appears, leading Jack to a confessional of sorts.
What's interesting is, up to this point in time, Jack has already been acting vaguely intoxicated. But when his enabler Lloyd shows up, he falls completely off the sanity wagon. This whole concept is inherently terrifying since Ullman has told us in no uncertain terms that every drop of booze has been removed from the hotel to cut down on off-season insurance costs.
Sharp-eyed viewers among you might also notice that Jack praises Lloyd for his exemplary bartender skills but when he orders a bourbon, Lloyd clearly pours him a whiskey out of a J&B bottle. In the immortal words of Harry S. Plinkett: "you might not have noticed it, but your brain did."
Anyway Jack spends the next little while bad-mouthing Wendy, calling her "the old sperm bank" and a "bitch" at one point. He tells Lloyd that Wendy never let him forget about accidentally dislocating Danny's shoulder, even though we've seen absolutely no evidence of her harping on him. In fact, the only time she loses her shit on him is when the evidence points to no other possible suspect.
This is particularly telling when she shows up moments later and tells Jack that Danny was strangled by a "crazy woman in one of the rooms". Even though she's letting Jack off the hook by subscribing to their son's fevered retelling of events, Jack still comes back with "Are you out of your fucking mind?" Nice, Jack. Real classy.
Of course, this sets up a scene where Jack investigates Room 237. When I watched this for the first time, I remember being positively shit-baked. This place had been built up right from reel one as the absolute nexus of horror for the entire film and considering what I'd suffered through thus far, I was nearly sick with dread.
We see Jack inch his way through the oddly-appointed suite, seemingly oblivious to the ominous music shredding what was left of my wits to ribbons. We see his hand on the bathroom doorway as he pushes it open and enters. We see the intimation of a figure in the bathtub behind the shower curtain. Slowly the curtain is drawn back by the occupant, revealing a gorgeous naked woman in the tub.
Despite the fact that Jack has no clue who this woman is, he's clearly pleased by his good fortune. Especially as this mystery woman stands up, climbs out of the tub and starts walking towards him. With 'YOLO', the battle cry of horny men everywhere firmly in mind, Jack follows suit, embracing and then kissing her passionately.
It's at this point when Kubrick clobbered me right between the eyes and the legs. We get a glimpse of the woman's true appearance in the mirror and what happens next is a masterclass in horror editing and sound design. It's so effective that I don't think its ever been rivaled in cinema history.
Plot twist: all this time Jack has been snogging a dead elderly woman, her saggy, wrinkled flesh marred by wide-spread patches of rot. Relishing her deceit, the hag starts to cackle like a witch in a Disney cartoon. Then we get an unexpected shot of Danny experiencing some sort of seizure. Then back to the tub with the old woman's decayed body under water, her skin discolored and eyes agape. Naturally this is lit with the most harsh, unforgiving florescent lighting possible.
Kubrick cruelly refuses to release us from this seemingly-endless symphony of terror. Next we cut back to Jack as he retreats from the room. Then we see the naked old crone, walking towards him, her wet hair like strings of seaweed, her toothless grin perverse and leering. Then over to a convulsing, drooling Danny. Then back to the corpse in the bathtub. Then onto Jack stumbling in reverse though the living room. Then back to the woman reaching out to him. Then back to Danny. Then back to the body RISING SLOWLY OUT OF THE BATHWATER, eyes still open and vacant.
Even as Jack escapes the room, shuts the door and then bars it behind him, we can still hear that hideous, hair-raising cackle as he flees down the hallway.
I distinctly remember turning the movie off at that point, if only to exert some terrestrial control over it. I turned on all of the lights again in an effort to drive back any malevolent threats that might be lurking in the shadows. During my tour of the house, I caught myself appraising common household objects for their defensive capabilities against disembodied entities. That's when I chided myself and realized that the only threat to me at that moment was Stanley Kubrick's fevered imagination.
Looking back over this series of Obligatory Halloween Posts, it's pretty easy to see one common denominator. All of these horror movies were helmed by a directors who's field of fucks were clear and presently barren. They shattered taboos right in front of you and then proceeded to rub your nose in it. They were fearless in their pursuit to scare the ever living shit out of the audience.
And that's what dutifully sent me back to the VCR. I felt that if I could get through The Shining, it would be the cinematic equivalent of eating the heart of your enemy and gaining their strength. So, once again I dimmed the lights, settled in and shakily mashed the "PLAY" button.
What happened next baffled me even more. Wendy asks Jack about what he saw in the room and he plays dumb. At first I was completely confused by this, but then I realized that if he'd come clean, Wendy would have thrown Jack and Danny over her shoulder, run down to the snow cat, thrown them both inside, started it up and wouldn't have stopped driving until they hit the first off-ramp to Boulder. Sure, Shelly Duvall is pretty spindly in the movie, but, hey, when the spirit moves you, so to speak...
Even without his confession, Wendy makes a cut and dried case for evacuation. Danny has another one of his perfectly-timed, patented blood tsunami visions just as Kubrick hard cuts back to Jack who violently rails against the very suggestion that they leave.
JACK: "It is so fucking typical of you to create a problem like this when I finally have a chance to accomplish something. When I'm really into my work. I could really write my own ticket if I went back to Boulder now, couldn't I? Shoveling out driveways, working in a car wash - any of that appeal to you? Wendy, I have let you fuck up my life so far, but I'm not going to let you fuck this up!"
Wendy is left reeling in the wake of Jack's caustic vitriol. He tears ass back to the Gold Room, where he inexplicably finds the place packed with revelers who all apparently share the same passion for "Roaring 20's" cosplay. After collecting another free drink from Lloyd, he mistakenly bumps into one of the servers, who spills several drinks onto his jacket. The waiter offers to clean Jack up and escorts him into the washroom.
In the next scene the butler is revealed to be Delbert Grady. At first we assume that it's the same Grady that Ullman was talking about at the beginning of the film, but that was "Charles" not "Delbert". Jack tries to get Grady to admit to being the former caretaker who murdered his own family but the waiter remains elusive and turns the focus back on Jack.
GRADY: "I'm sorry to differ with you, sir, but you are the caretaker. You have always been the caretaker. I should know, sir. I've always been here."
Grady does a complete bait-and-switch on Jack, warning him that Danny has already sent out a psychic S.O.S. to Dick Halloran after his harrowing encounter in Room 237. In many ways this discussion between Jack and Grady is just as spine-tingling and shocking as the visuals that came before it. Particularly caustic is how Grady refers to Halloran and how quickly Jack identifies Danny as "willful" and Wendy as someone who always "interferes".
As soon as the cat is out of the bag, Grady sheds any pretensions and starts talking about his own struggles, albeit under the cloak of euphemism.
GRADY: "Perhaps they need a good talking to, if you don't mind my saying so. Perhaps a bit more. My girls, sir, they didn't care for the Overlook at first. One of them actually stole a packet of matches and tried to burn it down. But I corrected them, sir. And when my wife tried to prevent me from doing my duty I corrected her."
Upon hearing that, Jack's face lights up in a wolfish smile and you know that the denouement of the film will be as certain and unavoidable as the end of a Greek tragedy. Up to this point, the movie was running at about a "10" on the ol' Scare-O-Meter but this conversation cranks things up to a Spinal Tap-ian "11" and then breaks the knob off.
From here on in the film's pace becomes an unstoppable juggernaut. Danny is so traumatized by this point that Tony has taken over as the dominant personality. Wendy leaves the apartment to find Jack and tell him that she's taking Danny out in the snow cat. Clearly she's so troubled by these prospects that she brings a Louisville Slugger along with her for self defense.
Wendy goes to find Jack in the Colorado Lounge and discovers that the manuscript that he's been obsessively working on is a rather one-note autobiography that's admittedly no worse than your average Stephanie Meyer novel. Instantly her worse fears are confirmed and she's forced to face the fact that her husband has gone totally and irrevocably mad.
What follows is a scene that reportedly took one-hundred and thirty seven takes to get right. Jack pops up out of nowhere and starts berating Wendy. She tries to retreat back up the stairs, waving the baseball bat like a wand of protection out in front of her. Eventually she corks her manic husband in the melon, sending him tumbling down the steps.
It's breath-taking to watch this sequence for several reasons. For one, it's impeccably shot. Kubrick placed stacks of high-wattage floodlights just outside the fake windows of the lounge's studio interior, creating a genuinely over-exposed "snow blind" effect that you would typically only see during the dead of winter. This subtly conveys hints of cold isolation. There's no way out. He also uses the newly-minted Steadicam to great effect, making it feel as if camera's perspective, and the audience's P.O.V., is that of a disembodied voyeur.
But it's the performances that make the scene particularly hard to watch. Jack is inhumanly cruel to his wife, mocking her voice, making light of her concern for their son and giving her a supreme guilt trip for not keeping the focus where it belongs: on her husband. As he backs her up the steps, Wendy begs him not to hurt her and he replies:
JACK: "Darling, light of my life, I'm not going to hurt you. You didn't let me finish my sentence. I said 'I'm not going to hurt you...I'm just going to bash your brains in!' I'm going to bash them right the fuck in."
Sure, Jack is great, but the real super-star here is Shelly Duvall. By all accounts, Kubrick was inordinately cruel to her on set, to the point where she fell ill for months, suffered from fainting spells between scenes and her hair started falling out in clumps. I wouldn't be surprised if the seed of her current lamentable mental state was planted on the set of The Shining.
In this scene, she isn't acting. She's just trying to get through it, which just so happens to be Wendy's motivation as well. All she wants to do is get away from Jack and get back to her room. Which begs the question: did Kubrick's unorthodox methods justify the means? Personally, I wouldn't have had the "belly for it" to paraphrase Grady, but it did result in one of the most memorable and authentic performances in cinema history. It's baffling and frankly unforgivable that Shelly Duvall was callously nominated for a Worst Performance Razzie Award in 1981.
Wendy drags Jack's unconscious body into the food store room and locks him in. When Jack comes to, he tries to use every underhanded trick in the book to convince her to let him out, but she won't budge. When she tells him that she plans to take the snow cat into town and then come back with help, Jack ominously replies that she's got a "big surprise coming to her" and "she isn't going anywhere".
Sure enough, Wendy discovers that Jack has disabled both the radio and the snow cat. As the realization dawns on Wendy that they're completely isolated now, we cut back to the store room where Delbert Grady turns up again. He mocks Jack, calling into question his ability to handle the escalating situation. Jack assures him that this is just a momentary hiccup and that he's fully committed to follow through on their verbal contract.
GRADY: "I fear that you will have to deal with this matter in the harshest possible way, Mr. Torrance. I fear that is the only thing to do."
JACK: "There's nothing I look forward to with the greater pleasure, Mr. Grady."
That's when we hear the pin being removed from the lock. It's the only instance in the entire film where the environment gets physically manipulated by "spiritual forces". I have a theory about that, which I'll mention later, but if you take the film at face value and believe that the hotel is indeed rife with malevolent ghosts, this is your biggest piece of supporting evidence.
From here on in it's just one visceral body blow after another. Drained, exhausted and oblivious to Jack's escape, Wendy falls asleep in their locked apartment. Danny wakes up, the voice of Tony muttering "REDЯUM, REDЯUM" over and over again. He picks up a knife, writes this cryptic word on the bathroom door and then starts to approach his sleeping mum. Does he intend to do her harm?
Watching this for the first time I could feel the hackles rising on my back as Tony's eerie mantra got increasingly louder and more shrill. Roused by the unsettling noise, Wendy wakes up and immediately embraces her son, even though he's standing over her with a butcher knife. Set to the cacophonous strains of the spine-jangling soundtrack, Wendy looks up and sees the word "REDЯUM" reversed in the mirror as "MURDER". At that self-same moment, the head of Jack's fire-axe hits the apartment door for the first time.
This is yet another bravura example of music, editing and deft camera work. I love the quick zoom in on "MURDER" just as the soundtrack kicks in. Also amazing is how Kubrick manages to keep the head of Jack's axe in the center of the frame every time he draws back and swings at the door. Sharp-eyed audience members will also notice that the music is largely absent while this is happening.
Though terrified, Wendy has the presence of mind to gather up her son and the knife and retreat into the bathroom just as Jack breaks through. Shelley shoves Danny through the outside window / mail slot and then tries to follow suit but is surprised to learn that she's too big (!) to squeeze through. She tells him to run and hide and then turns back just as Jack makes his first connection with the bathroom door.
Moments before her psychotic husband is about to break through ("HEEEEERE'S JOHNNY!!!"), Jack hears the sound of a snow cat outside. He leaves her to stalk and murder the "intruder" Halloran with the axe, which has become another source of criticism of the film. I can sorta see this if only because Kubrick goes out of his way to show every step of Halloran's odyssey to get back to the hotel. He finally gets there after an epic trek only to get hacked down by Jack as unceremoniously as a kid knocking over a pile of Jenga blocks.
But there are many reason why things happen this way. First off it shows that Jack will murder anyone that stands in the way of his fantasy life at the hotel. On a merely practical level, it provides Wendy and Danny with a possible means of escape. Next it subverts audience expectations that anticipates some big clash between Jack and Halloran. Finally, I believe that it dove-tails with the film's theme which I'll touch on later.
Jack then chases Danny out of the hotel and into the nearby hedge maze. This leaves Wendy alone in the hotel, searching frantically for her son while trying to escape. This results in one memorable system shock after another for both the viewer and the beleaguered mom.
Kubrick annihilated what was left of my frazzled nerves by having Wendy stumble upon some sort of lurid, surreal, half-glimpsed costumed coupling going on behind a half-open door. Just thinking about this image and the teeth-jangling music always gives me chills because its so fucking inexplicable. My brain always short-circuits whenever I see it. I guess, in full disclosure, I need to add "furries" to my list of irrational fears, along with British kids and old hotels.
Another jolt to the nerves. Another pause for air. At least when I went back to the movie that last time I could see the maze's exit in the distance.
After the costumed shenanigans, Wendy gets treated to the hotel's greatest hits package: including a zoom in on Halloran's bloody corpse, a formally-attired wraith with a massive head-wound who casually remarks "Great party, isn't it?", a dusty, cob-webbed chamber filled with funhouse skeletons and finally her own private showing of the blood-filled elevators. All told, it's a last final "fuck you" from Kubrick to all of those pretenders who claim to be "masters of horror".
By now, Danny has managed to outwit his psychotic pops in the maze by back-tracking in his own footsteps and jumping off the path. Jack roars by and Danny follows the prints out to the exit and reunites with his mom. They escape in the snow cat and we get one final smash cut into the harsh light of day and the jarring sight of a frozen Jacksicle.
Of course the movie can't end without yet another Kubrick-ian head-scratcher. The camera slowly zooms in on a photo hanging on the wall which shows an impossibly-young Jack standing front and center among a huge throng of period-attired revelers. The cryptic caption on the image reads "Overlook Hotel - July 4'th Ball, 1921."
At first I just assumed that Jack was either a re-incarnation or just a distant relative of someone who once worked at the hotel. This sort of explains why Jack was drawn there and why he has such an odd affinity for the place; a case of "ancestral recall" as it were. Now I think the entire mise-en-scene is just one big analogy. Specifically I think the Overlook Hotel is a representation of America, and everything that happens during the film is just a rumination on white privilege, cyclical abuse and historic gender roles.
Hearkening back to the roaring 20's is nothing new. Sure, it was a boom time, but it was also rife with racism and exploitation. It's the same myopic nostalgia that Donald Trump and his ilk have for the 1950's, which was a real Golden Age so long as you weren't black or a woman. I think the Overlook itself is an idealized view of the kind of America that people like Jack dream about.
America was built on the backs of natives, slaves and immigrants but the country's success has almost universally been claimed by white people. The film drives home this point when Ullman casually mentions that the hotel was built on an Indian burial ground and Jack later makes a non-sequitur reference to "white man's burden" while drinking with Lloyd. This is a reference to a hideously-racist poem written by Rudyard Kipling which posits that "civilized" nations should be encouraged, nay obliged, to help out more "primitive" races under the guise of imperialism.
This is also why Grady is so adamant that Jack eliminate "outsiders" like Halloran. It's to keep the environment, or "America" pure. Sound familiar? I also think that's why Halloran gets disposed of so easily. Kubrick shows him doing the right thing, busting his ass to respond to Danny's alert and come save the hotel that he has a vested interest in. But as soon as Halloran tries to right the wrongs, Jack just bombs in and cuts him down without hesitation in a selfish, wasteful moment of self-preservation.
As for the rest of the film, I believe that it's largely psychological. Jack, like the average guy, was probably told during a formative age that having sex with as many women as possible is a large part of being a man. I think that he got Wendy pregnant by mistake and was then baffled when those same societal forces demanded that he marry her and raise his son. Unable to reconcile these two directives, he now simmers away in a stew of resentment, silently wishing that they'd just go away because he thinks his life would be better without them. That's why he's hostile to them right from their first scene together. Remember, "All Work and No Play makes Jack a Dull Boy."
This resentment boils over from time to time, which results in physical and verbal abuse. That's why I believe Jack injured Danny in Room 237. After all, isn't the tennis ball that rolls towards Danny the very same ball that Jack was firing against the wall in those earlier scenes? This also reaffirm's Halloran's belief that the visions are all harmless. Danny's coping visions aren't aren't going to leave a physical mark, but his father's hands will.
But what about Jack's own encounter encounter in Room 237? Well, I think the whole thing is a manifestation of his guilt over Wendy. When he sees the hottie in the tub he doesn't think twice about making out with her, because that's what happened when he met Wendy. But when the hottie starts to turn into something flawed, aged and imperfect, he's repulsed.
Now I hear you asking, "Wait a minute, Dave! What about Grady?" No worries, I was just getting to him.
You'll notice that every encounter that Jack that has with "ghosts" in the movie (save Room 237) is a positive experience. They're welcome residents in a fantasy world of his own creation. The same goes for Grady. There's a reason why Jack and Grady converse in a mirrored bathroom and why the bartender Lloyd seems to emerges from a mirror. I believe that Jack sees both of them as a reflection of his own self.
Grady and Lloyd are dichotomies: they may be servants, but they're posh servants. Jack sees himself in the exact same manner: he's a blue-collar shlub, workin' for "that man" but he has lofty ambitions. He's protective of the status quo yet resentful that this hasn't paid off in dividends yet. He's got the right skin color to match society's elite but not the right bank balance.
I think the reason why Grady is given two different first names and why Lloyd fucks up the drink order is because they're both constructs of Jack's psyche and the product of his own incompetence. Lloyd justifies Jack's drinking (I.E. insanity) while Grady is Jack's sounding board to work himself up to whacking his family. He sincerely thinks that by rebooting his personal life and keeping any "undesirables" away he'll finally get the full windfall of white privilege that's owned to him. This, in spite of the fact that Jack is lazy, entitled and seems himself as thoroughly blameless for his own lot in life.
Which brings me to Wendy. She's the glue that holds the family together, even if the family should be crumbling by rights. Have you noticed that Wendy is the only person who actually does any work? She cooks the meals, tidies the place up, keeps tabs on the weather, monitors the boilers and regularly checks in with the forest rangers. So when Jack suggests that Wendy is trying to get him to shirk his responsibilities to his employers, this almost comes off as laughable.
In contrast to the male paradigm of "go forth and conquer", women of Wendy's generation were told that they'll be successful if they found a reasonably-suitable man, got married and had babies. If the man is scarcely suitable, then women are told that she should do whatever they can to change him and if she can't improve him, this might be seen as some sort of personal failure. This holds especially true in the movie since Wendy is more apt to believe Danny's "crazy-woman-in-one-of-the- rooms" yarns then accept the fact that Jack hurt their son again.
And I think that's why Wendy finally starts to see "spirits" during her escape from the hotel. She's forced to confront the fact that her raison d'etre, her husband, is a psychotic monster and this shatters her entire paradigm. The resulting shock causes her own psychotic breakdown, which manifests in all of the crazy shit she sees.
As for Danny, I believe his visions are just a symptom of the routine abuse he suffers at the hands of his father. Tony is more than just an imaginary friend, he's part of split personality that ends up assuming control of the boy when the trauma becomes too much to bear. I also think that Tony is the one who releases Jack from the storage room because he wants Jack to get his comeuppance, perhaps at the hands of Halloran or Wendy. When this doesn't happen, it's up to Danny / Tony to lure Jack into the maze and make him pay for all the grief he's caused. Danny does this by literally back-tracking in his father's foot steps and not leading the vanguard into another cycle of abuse.
And finally, there's the photo. I really don't believe it represents a previous incarnation of Jack. I believe its a commentary on Jack's antiquated beliefs. Spiritually, he's more at home in 1921 then he's ever been in present day. Rather than see the flaws in the hotel and everything it stands for, Jack keeps glorifying the setting and the era. So instead of forging a real future with his family, his soul becomes forever lodged in what amounts to a Star Trek-ian temporal causality loop.
Or, hey, maybe the whole movie is just about evil spirits in a haunted house that goad a mentally unstable former alcoholic into trying to murder his wife and child.
I'm serious. Kubrick was once asked about symbolism in The Shining during a interview and he said that "For the purposes of telling the story, my view is that the paranormal is genuine. Jack's mental state serves only to prepare him for the murder, and to temporarily mislead the audience". He also went on to state, in no uncertain terms, that "the ballroom photograph at the very end suggests the reincarnation of Jack."
But that's what makes this movie so great. It's like the Dagobah tree in The Empire Strikes Back; viewers always take out of the film precisely what they bring into it.
Like I said before, The Shining was practically pilloried by critics when it was first released. In addition to poor Shelly Duvall getting a wholly undeserved Razzie nomination for Worst Actress, Kubrick was inconceivably nominated for Worst Director. It's hysterically short sighted looking back on it now.
Perhaps the film's most notable critic was Stephen King himself. He thought that Kubrick had taken far too many liberties with the original source material. Interestingly enough, when King personally oversaw a slavishly-faithful television movie version in 1997, the results were tepid and forgettable at best.
Personally, I think King hated this version because the character of Jack was largely autobiographical. King hated to see Jack portrayed as an asshole from the beginning because he took it as a personal affront but nothing could be further from the truth. I just think Stanley hated the idea of the audience having any sympathy at all for Jack. In Kubrick's eyes, Jack is a self-centered, misogynist, racist, serially abusive prick who's obsessed with self-betterment to the ruination of all else.
Whenever I re-watch the film I get the impression that Kubrick read King's novel at arms length. That distance and perspective gave him the ability to hone in on the novel's true subtext which he went on to underscore in his film version. The resulting picture is a lean and mean masterpiece. It's one of the most artistic, epic, psychologically-complex and flat out terrifying movies ever unleashed on an unsuspecting public.
And every year I test the film again to see if it still holds sway over me and guess what? It never fails to frighten the crap outta me. Even now, just as I'm writing about it, I'm getting chills up and down my spine.
So, for its memorable setting, brilliant cinematography, go-for-broke performances, labyrinthine subtext and eternally haunting, perverse imagery, The Shining scores a "4" out of "5" on the ol' Evil-O-Meter:
So, there you have it, kiddies! Join me again same time next year for yet another installment of my Obligatory Halloween Post.
EPIC: Even thought Kubrick is quoted as saying "If you submit it to a completely logical and detailed analysis of (a supernatural story) it will eventually appear absurd", it hasn't prevented cinephiles from dissecting every aspect of The Shining in excruciating detail. This resulted in the gloriously loopy doc Room 237, which isn't so much about the movie as it is about bending the interpretation of art just to suit your questionable agenda.
ALSO EPIC (BUT FOR TOTALLY DIFFERENT REASONS): Stanley's daughter Vivian shot a "behind the scenes" doc during the making of The Shining that really gives a lot of insight into the production, particularly where it concerns the cast and crew dealing with her father's eccentricities. It's buried in the middle of this low-fi episode of BBC's "Arena" but its still worth a watch.
FAIL: There's a reason why movies are different from books, Stephen.